Shawn Ruby

Parshat Chayei Sarah: The Reasons We Choose, The Reasons We Are Chosen

Elections are on our minds this week as most of Israel went to the polls to choose their municipal governments.  For reasons I do not fully understand, my local council elections have been postponed to December, so I did not get to vote, but I watched a number of different city elections closely.  A good friend ran an unfortunately (for her and Raanana) unsuccessful bid for city council in my old hometown.  I always follow the Jerusalem elections, and in general I was interested to see how moderate, good government types fare against more ideological and political opponents.  I am also concerned about women’s representation in government, and this week was a big disappointment on that front.  In many cases, I looked at the results and wondered what led people to vote as they did.  What reasons were there for their choices?  Were they really weighing the characters or policies of the candidates? Were they voting by a tribal-like loyalty, for the candidate who was closest to them in the Israeli ethnic/religious mix?

With all this in mind, I dove into the weekly Parsha.  Elections, in the sense of God’s Elected, are a major theme of Genesis.  Who is chosen, why they are chosen, over whom they are chosen, and for what purpose they are chosen – all these come up over and over again throughout the stories of our forefathers.    This week’s parsha features the transition from Abraham to Isaac, and the choosing of Rebecca as the second of our four foremothers.

Abraham is chosen for a mission.  It is his responsibility to “instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” (Genesis 18:19).  For this he was singled out from his brothers in Haran, and told to go to the land that God will show him.  We are initially told nothing about Abraham’s character, and why he, specifically, was chosen from among all of humanity.  Throughout the last two parashot, his character is slowly revealed and develops.  We learn of his ethical behaviour, his failures and his recovery from them, and of his closeness to God.  We see a man who takes action to see his visions realized, and does not rely on the promises God makes to him to be actualized on their own.  Abraham is chosen because the mission is the whole reason for choosing at all, and he commits himself fully to it.

Later, we will see how Jacob struggles to and contends to be chosen above his twin, Esau.  In the end, he is elected by God to be the last of the forefathers, and it seems that it is the struggle itself and Jacob’s striving which make him worthy.

However, Isaac is an enigma.  While we have a lengthy story about how his wife is chosen for him, in which she demonstrates the kindness and generosity that mark her as worthy of Abraham’s legacy, we know almost nothing about Isaac at this point.    He is a passive character throughout most of his story, and certainly up to and including this parsha.   Furthermore, we know that it was not anything about his character that led him to be chosen.  He was chosen before his birth, as God told Abraham at the Covenant of Circumcision.  It seems it was simply his status as the son of Sarah that made him a preferable candidate to Ishmael, his older brother.  This is not to say that Isaac did not have qualities that made him worthy.  It is simply that clearly they were not prerequisites for his election, as his election preceded his birth and the development of those qualities.

Isaac’s election as our patriarch involved no effort on his part.  His father, on God’s command in many cases, casts away his opposition one by one, before he is even old enough to know what is happening.  Unlike Abraham, he does not need to leave his home or make any great sacrifices to assume his position. (Undergoing the trauma of his near-sacrifice was after his election, not before it.)  Unlike Jacob, he does not need to strive to obtain his position against a brother who is his father’s favourite.  The election is handed to him, uncontested.

Our three forefathers show three different models of Divine election.  Abraham is chosen to fulfill a mission, to create something new, and his character serves the mission.  Isaac is chosen simply for being born to the right parents, Abraham and Sarah.  His role in the family destiny is one of extension of his parents, of entrenchment.  This is a necessary step in the building of the nation.  The third generation, embodied in Jacob, struggles to find ways to renew the mission to adapt it for the future.

The State of Israel’s first generation of leaders, like Abraham, created something new.  The Zionist mission was paramount, and their characters were subservient to it.  The next generation of leadership took fledging institutions, and like Isaac, entrenched them and solidified them into a national infrastructure.  Often they were chosen because they were the protégés of the founding generation.  Like Isaac, they were chosen for who they were connected to, as much as for themselves.   We are now in the third and fourth generations of leadership, and what is needed is creativity in making the Zionist dream something that will last for posterity.

The men and (too few) women we elected this week to be our local leaders across the cities and towns of this country are building on two generations of creation and institution building.  Their predecessors successfully established education systems, law enforcement and all the institutions of municipal government on the framework of settlements created by the first generation of Israel’s leaders.  It is their job now to find the ways to renew, reform and extend that work, so that it is relevant for the present and future of our country.  I trust that we chose leaders up to the task, and I wish them well in it.

About the Author
Shawn Ruby is a recent refugee from Israeli hi-tech, launching a new career in Rabbinics and education. He is a veteran immigrant to Israel from Canada, via the US. He is married with 3 children. Older blog posts at
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